When President Donald Trump visited the grave of Andrew Jackson during a recent trip to Tennessee, some commentators recoiled at the thought that Trump, a populist who clearly believes in a strong, forceful chief executive, would find in Jackson an historical figure with which he could identify. The nation’s 7th president was a colorful, deeply flawed individual, not unlike the 45th occupant of the highest office in the land. But instead of worrying over Trump’s decision to pay homage to Jackson, honest observers should at least see the basic merit of the action.
Just days before he took office, Trump quite bluntly said that he had no use for heroes. The remarks came during a press availability with foreign reporters. “Well, I don’t like heroes, I don’t like the concept of heroes, the concept of heroes is never great,” Trump said before talking about how you can respect certain people (he cited his father) who have done good things.
The moment was a revealing one, and Trump skeptics rightly pointed out that the remarks sounded like they came from someone who didn’t spend a lot of time pondering history, the past, or weighing his actions in the context of what others in his position might do. It is possible the remarks were just another attempt by Trump to portray himself as a forward-looking, confident leader and did not represent any real philosophical outlook that denied the good in having heroes.
But one has to take the comments at face value. And on their face they revealed a leader who believes that he is capable of shaping history without holding it in overly high regard.
Fast forward to Trump’s actions at the Hermitage and his subsequent comment that “It was during the revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite. Does that sound familiar?” The Daily Beast reports that Trump’s love of Jackson is relatively newfound and strongly influenced by his close advisers. In fact, the public comparison of Trump to Jackson appears to have first come from Trump boosters, with The Atlantic publishing a piece on the parallels weeks after the presidential election. The magazine named several Trump allies who promoted the comparison even before the election.
Trump’s willingness to pay public respect to an historical figure, even one as deeply flawed as Jackson, is a sign that on at least some level he is aware of the immense duties of his office. Only 45 people have ever held the office of President of the United States. There is no rulebook for how the job is to be done, and the only academic program of study that can prepare one for the task is a vigorous look at how different predecessors handled the awesome responsibility. History is hardly a predictor of the future, but it is a reasonable guide that offers real lessons for what did and did not work in similar situations in the past.
A cursory study of Jackson will reveal the political popularity he achieved by holding the elites and special interests accountable. It will also reveal the long-term folly of his policy toward Native Americans. Both are lessons that Trump could apply to contemporary challenges, from how to deal with illegal immigration (forced deportation of all illegal aliens likely won’t solve the problem) to how to rebuild the nation’s image abroad while expanding economic opportunity at home.
One must be careful to not assume that Trump’s homage to Old Hickory involves respect for the many flaws of the backwoods president. Michael Gerson, speechwriter to President George W. Bush, rightly summarized Jackson’s many shortcomings in a recent column criticizing Trump’s display of public respect for his distant predecessor. But Gerson also failed to recognize that it is possible to respect the positive qualities of complex historical characters while learning from their deepest and most tragic mistakes.
We should never be ashamed to judge a previous generation’s actions as wrong when they violate basic standards of morality, but we should never be so arrogant as to assume that we cannot learn something from those who have gone before. If Trump chooses to study Jackson and learn from his predecessor, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Time will tell what lessons were learned, but for now, the humility in recognizing that there are some lessons to learn is a commendable thing.